The time has come to reflect on this wonderful experience. This year I was involved in a brilliant new production by Puppetvision, "Peta and the Whale". Like many of my blog posts my first instinct when writing this is to say something like "Where to begin?" or "Phwoar, what a whirl wind"... but I am concerned I have become predictable! But maybe this is something I should be happy about. If so many of my puppetry adventures inspire that reaction, I suppose it means I am more often than not involved in projects that are full and challenging. I am very lucky to do what I do and to continuously be learning, growing, meeting wonderful people and expressing myself creatively. But I digress... "Peta and the Whale" was certainly one of these experiences; inspiring, challenging, exhausting and oh so much fun (nailed the segway!).
Brainchild of Philip Millar, Peta and the Whale is a concept he had been working on for several years. This year, the time had come to put his ideas in to action. With limited time, limited budget and limited space, to say this project was a challenge is an understatement. The team of people behind this show all worked together to pull it off, and I think we absolutely smashed it. Making its debut in this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival, we sold out our entire season, ten shows at the North Melbourne Town Hall. And now I have returned to my original conundrum! Where to start? Though certainly I have started this post, where do I go now?
Do I talk about the very beginning?
Peta and the Whale - Origins.
I don't have that much insight in to the real origins of the show. As mentioned, Philip had this one in his mind for quite a while before I came on board. My Peta and the Whale journey began at a puppetry event hosted by Black Hole Theatre earlier this year where Phillip and his partner in crime Victoria Osborne approached me to ask if I would like to be involved in a new project. They said they were looking for up-and-coming, enthusiastic people. I was flattered. Enthusiastic I can definitely vouch for. As for up-and-coming? Time will tell. Fairly new to the Melbourne puppetry scene, I have been overwhelmed by the strength of the community. Welcoming, supportive and open, I am constantly meeting new people and I have to say... puppetry people really are some of the best.
Another solid segway there. Great People.
Peta and the Whale - The Team.
Oh these wonderful people. I can't help smiling just thinking about our rag tag little group. Such a diverse group of artists with different backgrounds, skill sets and personalities. This show relied so heavily on team work, and I couldn't imagine a better group of people to work with. The first night we all came together around Philip and Victoria's table, it is safe to say I felt like the small fish. As those of you who know me well (or frequent my blog) will remember, this is my favourite place to be. As the small fish in the big pond, you learn the most. And that, when it comes down to it, is my life's mission; to continue learning, growing and playing... well, that and to have loads of fun with wonderful people. But I digress yet again, we are not here to analyse my life's purpose... that could be a long post! Needless to say, Peta and the Whale ticked all of the boxes. Though a little overwhelming at first (feeling like the small fish) as time went on, I felt my fishy start to grow somewhat and felt confident working with a group of my peers. I am just realizing now how perfect the little fishy metaphor is for this project!
The team. Oh the team. Phillip Millar: extraordinarily talented with a huge amount of experience and skill, Phillip was incredible to work with. Phillip is best known for his work with Creature Technology, designing and creating giant dinosaurs and dragons that tour all over the world (just a bit of a cool job). Patient and supportive, but with a very clear idea of what he wanted to achieve. He allowed the whole team to collaborate which was lovely. We knew our opinions were appreciated, but we also knew that Phillip had the final say. It was a good balance.
Victoria Osborne: puppeteer extraordinaire and unofficial mum of the team. Next to the definition of "bright eyed and bushy tailed" in the dictionary, there is a photo of Victoria Osborne with a cheeky if not somewhat manic grin. A brilliant performer, so supportive and always with cups of tea for all, working with this incredible woman was a joy.
Danny Miller: my friend (as dubbed by the children of Bundarra Primary School in Portland). Not long after beginning work on Peta and the Whale, I asked Danny to join my team at Trash Puppets. After dragging him across the state, we were accused by the children of this rural school: "You two look like you're friends!" We decided that this was probably true. Danny is an amazing puppeteer with a lot of experience, and just the kindest most well-mannered man. His gentle humor and his support during my marionette malfunctions was second to none.
Joe Blanck: the man in the paint spattered pants. Joe was the key puppet maker for the show. Working out of his studio, I didn't see Joe that often during the process, but when I did... wow, did he bring the bacon! Or tofu if you prefer. Joe is an incredibly skilled maker. The show could not have had the success that it did without Joe working away late in to the night with his amazing team making the most stunning puppets and sets. Again, burdened by a tight budget and even tighter time frame, the quality and beauty of the puppets was really astounding.
Franciscus Henri: a veteran of stage and screen, he has been entertaining children for decades. Working with this kind of puppet (a humanette with his own face and hands) presented a significant challenge, one which Franciscus rose to incredibly well. Grandpa's moments of showing off his little body always got laughs from the audience. I think Franciscus' wide array of funny facial expressions may have helped with this somewhat! Grandpa and Peta's relationship was something really special, and I am so glad Franciscus and I got to work together in bringing those moments to life.
Peter Nielson: absolutely fabulous. The man behind the lights, sound and also working with Phillip to create the incredible projections that appear throughout the show. Like Joe, I didn’t see a lot of Peter throughout as most of his work was conducted away from the chaos of our rehearsals. His work was really beautiful, plus he blessed us with the greatest warm up song we could have asked for.
Finally, I have to mention the wonderful Jess Davie; coming on board as our intern during rehearsals, she soon became indispensable. Our rock, Jess was such an asset to the whole team... so much so that the one day she couldn't come to rehearsals, Phillip's head exploded! Really he just got a nose bleed, but we all blamed Jess' absence. She took on so many small tasks, and a few big ones, I couldn't imagine us doing it without her.
There is so much more I could say about these people and a few others I could mention (you know who you are) but I won't for now. Perhaps I will tell them to their face. Is it our staunch British heritage or the revolution of social media that has made us forget to tell people how much we appreciate them in person? Who knows!? Somehow it is easier to gush in writing... or after a few glasses of wine! I know I gush a lot about people in my blogs, but again, I suppose I am lucky to meet so many wonderful people who I feel the need to gush about. Puppetry people. Am I right!? Some of the best.
Where to next? Don't worry, I am very aware of how long this post is getting! I have a habit of rabbiting on (said Darryl Kerrigan). My advice if you are finding this post too long. Stop reading. You have the technology! Go have some tea. I might do that actually.
And we're back. How was your tea? Mine was delicious. Black tea, with a bit of honey, Mmmmm. Where were we? We were discussing the team... and from here I think we will move on to...
Peta and the Whale - Development
The process began as mentioned with a team of people sitting around a table. It was clear to me from day dot that we were going to mesh well. So much positivity in the room, it was the first time I had met most of the team and yet I felt comfortable almost instantly. Over tea and cake, we discussed Philip's vision, looked at some design sketches and read through the original draft of the script. Such a magical concept, a little girl and her grandfather escaping in to a world of imagination and memory - under the sea! I was excited by the potential. From here we discussed how we would proceed. Our first milestone was to be a work-in-development showing at the inaugural Melbourne Festival of Puppetry.
Over three weekends, we played. Under Phillip's guidance we explored the narrative. A highly visual show with little to no dialogue, we explored the visual opportunities open to us. Part of Phillip's vision was to incorporate as many different forms of puppetry as we could in this production. I loved this idea. The final production included a marionette, a humanette, shadow puppets, rod puppets, a glove puppet and even some object manipulation. This original development period was very short, but gave us a fantastic grounding to begin our real work. It also gave us the opportunity to work together as a team, getting to know one another and how best to communicate. The strong sense of camaraderie among the team began here. I am always fascinated by team dynamics, how quickly they are formed and how they grow. I have been a part of many teams such as this one and I honestly treasure the time spent within those projects. Spending so much time with the same group of people, you really bond and things often get quite silly. The silliness is my favourite part. After a long day of rehearsing and too much problem solving, that moment when everyone dissolves in to fits of giggles... Bliss.
We presented a short ten minute work-in-development at the Melbourne Festival of Puppetry in July. A fantastic new festival at La Mama, we were very lucky to be a part of it. Something I didn't get the chance to dedicate an entire blog post to (see post The Busy Puppeteer - sadly a few topics did not get covered that month!), it was a really incredible event which really brought the puppetry community together. I can't wait for next year's fest! The showing yielded good results; we received some helpful feedback and also some nice footage to help us launch our crowd funding campaign.
In September we began our official rehearsals. Two weeks, full time (a lot of overtime for some), we worked hard to put the show together. These two weeks were so much fun for me, albeit challenging and exhausting (which I do love).
But wait, there's something I can't believe I have yet to touch on... Peta! Beautiful Peta and the challenges she presented.
Peta and the Whale - Peta
Within the show, I worked with a number of puppets, but my main role was presenting the character of Peta. A little girl of around 7-8 years old who absolutely loves the ocean and all of its inhabitants, Peta was represented by a beautiful marionette created by Philip and Danny. 3D printed head and hands with a simple cardboard and foam body, she is a lovely puppet who underwent significant changes throughout our development. From the original mock up with her red gaffa tape socks to the beautiful little girl the audience met on stage, Peta was my greatest challenge within this show. Though I have quite a bit of experience with marionettes, my knowledge and skill lies primarily if not entirely with the British style of marionette. I am the first to admit, this is a fairly limiting factor. Peta originally had a very different control to what I am used to. A flat arrow head style of control created (quite brilliantly) out of an old plastic chopping board. Though I could understand the logic behind this control, I found it incredibly tricky to master. With limited time to rehearse, after our showing in July I put in a request to Philip for an upright control. The final control, true to Philip's nature was quite unique, a bit of a combination of the two styles, but much more comfortable for me. Learning how to control Peta was a process and incorporating her character and voice was a huge part of that. I was very pleased amidst our rehearsal's when Philip thanked me for "bringing her to life", a lovely compliment for a puppeteer. Looking back over the footage of the show recently, there is plenty I can critique myself on in my manipulation of Peta, but overall I was quite proud of what I accomplished in a short time.
Peta and the Whale - The Puppets
The rest of the puppets in the show presented their own challenges. Given the small space we would be performing in, some of the hardest problems to solve were those involving the shark and whale puppets. I can still see Victoria rolling around on the floor on her back on her little trolley holding a whale over herself, trying desperately to navigate the tiny space. I honestly think Danny and Victoria, my fellow puppeteers had a much harder role to play within this show. For me and Peta, our performance area was very clearly defined and though small, it was easy to access and fairly easy to navigate. For Danny and Victoria, there was a constant battle to move the puppets about while not running in to anything and keeping their own bodies out of the way. Not to mention Danny's prop hell! With a limited budget, stage hands were a luxury we could not afford and Danny somehow got lumped with 90% of the props and the tiniest corner to store them all. How he managed to deal with a ship, tiny boat, shark, squid, turtle, net, harpoon, coral reef, beeping hospital machine, tiny earth on a stick and more is beyond me! All while bringing life and character to a whole range of puppets! Checking my whole four props before each show seemed like a walk in the park. And yet, I still managed to lose Peta's pencil during one show. Which leads me to....
Drum roll please....
Peta and the Whale - The Fringe
We opened on September 22 for a ten show season at the North Melbourne Town Hall aka Arts House. There are several theatre spaces within Arts House and I must say, I think ours was the smallest. Seating an audience of 50, the performance space was very small, and for a show with over 20 puppets not to mention numerous props and set changes, this presented a significant challenge. We had been rehearsing within the confines of the space requirements so we were fairly prepared. With only two weeks to develop and rehearse the show however, we still felt a little shaky come opening day. Our first chance to run the entire show in the space with lights, sound and projections, the opening show was really our dress run. We were very lucky to have an incredible addition to our team during the Fringe, the wonderful Zillah Morrow. Stage manager of our little space for the entire Fringe season, Zillah had seven (if I remember correctly) different show's to manage and yet she was able to give us so much of her energy and time. We were very lucky to have her on board.
The season went incredibly well. As mentioned earlier, we were completely sold out (yay!) and the audiences we had were really lovely. Some days they would be loud and the small children would enjoy narrating what was happening on stage. We always enjoyed these days; "look Mum!", "When's the whale coming?", "That whale needs a band aid", "It's a dugong!", "TURTLE!" Other days they would sit in a quiet awe and only chuckle lightly at sillier moments but their energy would still connect with us on stage. It is incredibly how the energy of an audience can really amplify a performance. We rely on them to bring the puppets to life as much as they do us. It is in their belief of the puppets that they really live. One little boy broke my heart "It's just a puppet!” It's not JUST a puppet! It's A PUPPET! The most magical moments are those when children truly believe. In an early scene Peta draws pictures in her notebook and they then come to life through shadow puppets, and later transform again in to gorgeous 3D creatures created by Joe and operated by Danny and Victoria. One little boy commented as the 3D turtle emerged "They are actually real now!”
On top of Philip's desire to use EVERY style of puppet, he wanted to return to a traditional form of puppetry performance; black theatre. Nowadays it is more common for the puppeteers to be visible. The idea of hiding the puppeteer is quite dated. I personally prefer the more modern idea of the puppeteer being visible. If the puppeteer is doing their job right, you will not be looking at them. I do see the appeal of black theatre though. There is something incredibly magical about the characters alive in the space with no visible puppeteer behind them. I think it was especially important in this show for a number of reasons. Franciscus as mentioned performed with a humanette, a puppet that features his own face. Already you have a real human face on a puppet body. To have other human faces being seen would be quite disorienting for an audience. Also, with the heavy use of projection in the show, we would have been a distraction. Watching the footage, having not seen any black theatre myself, I was amazed at how effective it really was.
Always during productions, and especially when puppets are involved, there are little mishaps on stage, or shemozzles as I like to call them. The biggest and most mortifying shemozzle (for me anyway, everyone had their own moments) was during one of our first shows in week one. Midway through the first scene, one of Peta's leg strings came loose and I saw it go floating down on to the ground. Instant panic. For those not familiar with marionettes, this basically means she now has a dead leg. At this point she is ok. I can get away with simply kneeling and standing, something that I can do just by shifting her weight (thanks to the training I received at LSP). Following this scene however, she must walk. After a rushed performance with glove puppet grandpa (one of my other characters), I hurriedly hid behind the black curtain and tried to tie her leg string back on. In a black space, in dim lighting, with a black control and black strings, wearing black velvet gloves. My heart was going a million miles a minute. I pulled off one glove, desperately hoping the audience would not catch a glimpse of a naked hand flailing in the background. I found the string and tied it back on. Heart still pummeling I walk her on in time for her next scene and realize I have tied the leg string around her hand string. So now when I lift her knee, her hand rises as well. I could not recover. I soldiered on, and though the rest of the cast was unaware of my dilemma, and Phillip said later that I recovered well, I felt I had lost Peta. Though I managed to fumble my way through the scenes, my heart and head had completely lost focus and there was no getting it back. Peta moved, but in my opinion she did not live. I was mortified. The good news was, that for every small shemozzle that happened in any show following this one, I could calmly handle it and stay focused, as the leg string shemozzle was just big enough and stressful enough that nothing else could phase me. I did however check the strings thoroughly before every show from then on!
I feel we are close to the end of this post. There is so much more I could talk about. But I must try to keep it short (whoops, too late!). One thing I will mention is the Hackey Sack routine. This was something I had a lot of fun with and though I don't know that we always executed it perfectly, it presented a really neat challenge. In the opening scene, Peta plays hackey sack with a small globe of the world. With Danny operating the world on a long rod, we figured out a routine where working together Peta could kick and knee the hackey sack. Ideally I would have liked to rehearse this routine 100 more times, but what we managed to accomplish was really quite cool.
With the Fringe Festival under our belts, we have delivered version one of "Peta and the Whale", something I think the entire team can be incredibly proud of. It was a truly beautiful piece of theatre. The question is not if we will present it again, the question is when? And where? There is no doubt this show will live on and see version two, perhaps even version three and four. Phillip's vision is to do it again with more space, more time, more money, MORE PUPPETS! Time will tell. For now we rest happily knowing that we have entertained and shared with our audiences something unique and special. I enjoyed working with this team so immensely and cannot wait to do it all again. Thanks guys.
This little fishy has grown.
Coming up next? It must be about time for a post about Trash Puppets! Can you believe there hasn't been one? In the meantime visit www.trashpuppets.com to see some of what we have been up to.